25 February 2011

Unlearn what you have learned about board games

So I've been wanting to do some posts on the sorts of board games I've been playing, but each time I've realized that such a post would require a significant amount of introduction to bring people up to speed on modern hobby board gaming. So I've put off the more specific board game posts for now so that I can post a primer for those of you who might not be aware of what sort of depth the board gaming hobby has these days.

First things first: purge Monopoly from your mind. It's probably the first thing you think of when you hear the words "board game," and that's a damn shame. There's a board, certainly, but I'm less convinced about the "game" part. Monopoly is characteristic of those old childhood board games in that where you go is based entirely on luck, eliminating most of the potential for strategy. Then it takes it further by lasting freaking forever and having gameplay that makes you hate everyone else playing.

If I told you this game was actually developed by family counselors to generate more business for their practices, I bet you'd give it a moment of legitimate consideration.

That's not what board gaming has to be about. While most people these days get their games in video form (of which I'm also a big fan), board gaming offers plenty of things that video gaming can't, principally among them the pleasant tangibility of the physical board and pieces, and the wonderful social aspect of having all the players around the table to share the experience. So if you're ready to leave behind all the bad memories left with you by games like Monopoly and find out how much fun board gaming can actually be, read on. :)

(Throughout this post I'm going to put different gameplay mechanics I mention [and a few other common ones] in bold, and then provide a glossary of sorts at the bottom. Hopefully this will make this article and further ones I do regarding board games easier to understand.)

As mentioned above, perhaps the most important thing about modern board games is that the "roll-and-move" mechanic has all but disappeared. Many games these days will give you a certain number of actions or movements and you decide how you want to use them, and some don't involve movement of a pawn at all. Plenty of games still use dice, but overall there's a better feeling of being in control, which alleviates much of the frustration found in games like Monopoly.

I think the best place to start when discussing modern board games is The Settlers of Catan. It's a game that is synonymous with the new wave of German board games that reinvigorated the hobby when they found their way abroad, and it's a good illustration of the possibilities in board games when you ditch the old formula. Each player represents a group of settlers colonizing an island, which is made up of 19 hexagons that represent different types of terrain; the hexes are randomly placed each time you play, so it's always a different experience.

Each player starts with two settlements (the ones that look like small houses) and builds from there. This photo is from the end of the game. (Photo Source)
 Instead of moving a pawn across spaces, you're building up a network of roads, villages, and cities using the resources you gain each turn from the terrain you occupy. You can trade resources with the other players, so there's a lot of interaction going on. If it's your first departure from the old roll-and-moves (which I recommend it being) then it might take you some time to get your head around the different type of rules, but after that they're pretty simple. The game certainly isn't a brain-buster and still involves plenty of luck, so it makes for a nice casual game (and one you can expect not to suffer too much in if you've had a few drinks). For many folks, Settlers is the game that has replaced Monopoly in their mind as the archetypal board game.

Another good game for folks just getting into the hobby is Carcassonne. Instead of the resource management and route building mechanics of Settlers, this one uses tile laying and worker placement. It's a bit more abstract than Settlers as well. Players take turns drawing tiles that show portions of different features such as roads, cities, fields, and rivers. The tiles must be placed so that the features are continuous. After you place a tile you may place one of your workers on it so that you can score points off the depicted feature if you're able to complete it (by having one of your workers within a fully walled-off city, for example).

The little worker pieces are affectionately referred to as "meeples." (Photo Source)
On the surface it's fairly simple, but it still has some satisfying depth to it, particularly when it comes to scoring on fields, which can net you quite a bit of points but have a trickier method of claiming. Carcassonne is shorter than Settlers and can be good for a few games on its own, or as a bit of filler between two beefier games.

Now on to Puerto Rico, which is these days considered the quintessential "Euro" game. A Euro is usually a game which revolves around clever or elegant mechanics, has medium-to-low player interaction, and in many cases has an economic focus; they commonly use mechanics similar to the ones I've highlighted in the past two games and will mention with this one. In Puerto Rico, each player is a wealthy landowner on the titular island during the colonial era, and must decide how best to use their land and their connections on the island to build up their enterprise.

An individual player's board at the end of the game. Plantations producing different crops are on the bottom, buildings in the city are on the top. The brown discs are workers and the colored barrels are different goods. (Photo Source)
Each player draws from common pools of possible structures, but has their own play area on which they erect buildings and establish plantations. The game popularized the variable phase order mechanic, in which the actions that may be performed on a player's turn depend on which "role" they choose--everyone then performs the appropriate actions (such as picking buildings to add to their board or loading their goods onto boats), but the person who chose the role gets a bonus to the action. The player who can consistently time her actions so that they benefit her more than anyone else will win the game.

From the posterboy for Euro games, we'll turn 180 degrees and dive right into the other major category of modern games, so-called Ameritrash. If Euros are the person that's elegant and refined, even if a bit dull at times, then Ameritrash is the hot mess. Their focus is on artwork, lots of detailed pieces, and evoking a particular theme to a fault, often having a whole pile of fiddly rules in order to cover the many eventualities of their complex themes. They also typically involve a high amount of luck, with many actions like combat being resolved through dice rolls. A good example is Chaos in the Old World, in which players take on the roles of evil gods laying waste to a world and its peasants in their efforts to reign supreme.

Ameritrash: a bunch of flashy pieces and detailed artwork. And dice. LOTS of dice. (Photo Source)
One of the main reasons I like CitOW is that it has asymmetrical balance, in that each of the four gods has an equal chance of winning, but has an entirely different style of play. For instance, Khorne, the Blood God, gains the most points when he is defeating enemy forces, while Tzeentch, the God of Deception, is focused on controlling particular regions and has many tricky powers from his cards to accomplish this. CitOW also has an event deck, from which a new card is drawn each turn to represent events happening in the background of the world and will affect the positions and strategies of the players.

Another prime example of Ameritrash is a game called Arkham Horror. It's (somewhat loosely) based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and as such has the players struggling to keep ancient, indescribable beings from tearing the world asunder. Like CitOW and other Ameritrash, it has tons of beautiful components and lots and lots of die rolling. It also has some light roleplaying elements in that each player portrays a particular character and may adjust their traits over time.

Playing by candlelight is by no means a necessity, but certainly awesome. (Photo Source)
Perhaps most notable, though, is that it has cooperative gameplay. All the players are working together against the game itself, essentially. If they can work well together and are pretty lucky, they can prevent the lurking ancient being from emerging into their plane of existence and avoid a direct fight (which they wouldn't be likely to survive). They make their way through a board representing the fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts battling monsters, collecting useful items and clues, and sealing portals to other realms to prevent more ghouls from spilling through. In the end, they will all either win or lose as a group.

These games are merely the tip of the iceberg, within their genres and the hobby as a whole. There are plenty of other genres, such as pure card games and war games. The prior can take mechanics from familiar, traditional card games, but also introduce many others. The latter games can be in the vein of Risk, with large armies fighting on a grand scale, or they can be focused on squad level combat (these games are usually far more detailed in their gameplay).

Left: Condottiere is almost entirely a card game based on bluffing how many troops you're willing to commit to a battle, but also has a small board to keep track of the results of the card play. (Photo Source) Right: Advanced Squad Leader is an in-depth wargame in which players move their troops around a detailed representation of the battlefield. (Photo Source)
I clearly can't go into every type of game out there, and this post is already quite long, so I'll stop here. But if you have any questions about hobby board gaming feel free to ask, and if you're local, ask me about getting in on a gaming session. All but one of the games that I featured above is owned by either me or someone in my gaming group, and we have plenty of other good ones as well.

My hope with this post is that it'll inspire you to get together and play a game with family or friends, since it's a fantastic way to spend an evening in with folks you like. If not that, then at least you're aware that there's more to board gaming than just exercises in frustration like Monopoly, and maybe now the words "board game" won't make you instinctively cringe every time you hear them. :P

If you're interested in getting into board gaming, BoardGameGeek has everything you'd ever want to know, though it can be a bit hard to navigate at first. Toy stores, retail chains, and places like Barnes & Noble often carry board games, but you may have trouble finding hobby games like those above. Your best bet is either online (I recommend sites like Thought Hammer, Cool Stuff Inc., and Fun Again Games) or a devoted brick-and-mortar games store; if you're in the southern New Hampshire area, Myriad Games is fantastic.

Glossary of common gameplay mechanics in modern board games:

action point allowance: in each round of play, the player has a certain number of points to be used for various actions at their discretion, with more powerful actions typically using up more of those points
area control: players vie to control specific regions on a map; the classic example is Risk
asymmetrical balance: the players each have different gameplay options and will accordingly have different strategies for winning the game
auction: players bid a certain number of their limited resources in order to gain the rights to a particular item or action in the game
card drafting: choosing cards in a manner that is not totally random, such as taking turns picking from a set of face up cards or drawing from one of several different types of decks
cooperative gameplay: the players must work together to "defeat the game;" usually they win or lose as a group, but there can sometimes be measures for the "best" player, and some games even include traitors who try to cause the rest of the group to lose, usually in secret
event deck: a deck of cards that adds variability to game; you may face a different set of circumstances each time you play based on what cards are drawn, even if the board itself doesn't change
hand management: players must decide which cards to keep in their limited hand, usually to complete specific sets for points or other gameplay benefits
hex-and-counter: a common wargame mechanic, in which the terrain is represented by a honeycomb of hexagons and units are represented on stackable counters so that the player's full capabilities remain hidden
modular board: a board that is made up of many smaller pieces and can be rearranged in different ways so that the game plays out differently each time
resource management: players will produce resources and must decide the most effective way to convert them into things, such as types of buildings or pure points
roleplaying: typically involves players representing particular characters (sometimes of their own creation but in board games they usually are selected from a number of options); players will likely be gathering items, weapons, and skills for their characters, and may have some choice in their character's particular strengths and weaknesses
roll-and-move: the old, simplistic, and limiting mechanic that is unfortunately the one most people have been exposed to
route building: players must form a network on the game board, usually looking to have the farthest reach and/or the highest efficiency
tile laying: players build a board or other area tile by tile, trying to complete specific features or arrange configurations that further their particular goals
variable phase order: the same actions are not taken in the same order every turn, and may depend on those that the players themselves choose; choosing an action may get you a bonus to that action
worker placement: players have a limited number of "workers" that they must distribute judiciously to different areas in order to gain points or perform particular actions

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